Bottled cocktails became everyone’s best friend in lockdown as they helped us pretend our living rooms were bars. But not all bottled cocktails are created equally. In July, Tash McGill spoke to Amy Alexander, Co-Founder of J.M.R Cocktail & Co whose top-quality drinks bottle the high-end bar experience and deliver it to your house.
Tash: So I had heard about JMR cocktails and seen it around but never actually got to experience it, and then to meet you at Highball and be like, “Oh, you’re actually the genius behind all this stuff”, was a really fun way of connecting. So yeah, tell us a little bit about JMR and how that started.
Amy: Yeah, so we founded the company in 2017, my business partner and I, both of us come from a hospitality background, and him in particular from sort of a cocktail bar background. And myself was more sort of restaurant focused and hotels, sort of high end hotels, and then I worked in corporate liquor for a number of years in the on-premise channel. So I sort of had the love of hospitality and food, and you know, sales and customer focus, and obviously, the love of drinks as well. And then he came from opening some of the best bars in New Zealand and then he sort of moved into a different train, but still within hospitality and I started to focus more on JMR.
Tash: So what is JMR? Let’s break it down.
Amy: Yeah, so really simply put JMR is bottled cocktails, and we make super high quality drinks, just like you’d get in a bar, in bottles. So that’s the very basics of it, one of our ethos is that you shouldn’t really have to sacrifice quality to have something made for you. And so we were really passionate about creating a drink that was high quality, high standard of drink, and should taste exactly like you’d get if you were sitting at a cocktail bar. Essentially pop it out of your fridge, add some ice or chill down however you choose, garnish, and away you go.
Tash: So you were actually one of the early kind of brands on market when it came to the bottle cocktail in New Zealand. And so talk to me a little bit about that, because I think it’s a trend that people are still trying to get their heads around, like, why would people choose to drink at home, particularly when we’ve been in and out of lockdown for 18 months? But why would people choose to drink at home or to drink in the workplace, but to drink a bottle cocktail vs going to a bar and have somebody make it for them?
Yeah, so I think there’s kind of two points to that. So first, kind of drilling back to us being that first kind of one on the market in New Zealand. And we were in terms of that sort of premium level, there’s obviously a number of ready to drink drinks that existed here, but very different to what our offering is. And it was a lot of education. I think with both of our backgrounds, it lent a little bit of credibility to open some important doors initially. And once people tried them, they realised oh my gosh, this isn’t sugary, you know, over watered down, crappy for lack of a better term drink. And so this sort of proof was in it right? You know, the proof is in the pudding. It was a sort of slow build. Initially, the channel focus for me was on-premise, that was where I felt more comfortable. And I didn’t envision taking away that experience of a cocktail bar at all. Because personally, I love that, sitting at the bar. I love the theatrics of it. I love sitting there and talking to someone who’s at the top of their craft and walking me through what they’re doing. There’s no comparison at all. But what I soon realised in the on-premise environment was, I was staying in a lot of really beautiful hotels, I had a lot of travel with a number of my roles as did my business partner. And we’re just disappointed every time we open that minibar fridge like every night, you know, and so it wasn’t about replacing that experience of the bar, but it was me travelling by myself, not necessarily wanting to sit down at a hotel bar. I’d had a long day, I’d been talking to people all day. I just wanted a good drink in my room in my bathrobe, watching some horrendous TV movie, you know? And so that was sort of how that started. And the education piece is still ongoing for a lot of people. And what I soon realised, though, was people are gonna drink with their friends and their families. You know, it’s a very normal thing to do, in particular, New Zealand, to have something really nice with friends and family. And so I think, from being able to bring that experience outside of those cocktail bar walls to someone’s home is actually really special. And, again, a very different experience, but you can still have that little something special. And you know, instead of maybe a bottle of champagne, not that there’s anything wrong with that, at a dinner party, you might really want to change it up and bring a bottle of Negroni. It’s a conversation piece. It’s something that people will pour their own, experiment with garnishes, you know, some people think they’re a mixologist, and they want to shake, shake, shake. And I love that, like, those are our people, you know. But there’s also a level of knowing that it’s going to be high quality, it’s going to be consistent, and it’s going to taste really good. So that was sort of how that came to be.
Tash: So how do you get through the barrier? Or is it not really a thing anymore? But, you know, how do you get through that that barrier of a consumer expectation being that a pre-bottled cocktail is going to be like so many other RTDs on the market. So it’s either going to be highly carbonated, it’s going to have a lot of sugar or artificial flavours in it, and not necessarily that kind of premium experience that you might expect from a premium brand. How do you break that down and move past it with consumers?
Amy: Yeah, so it’s definitely still ongoing. In particular, as we’re starting to expand to some of like the larger retailers out there. Initially, I really targeted smaller owner-operated ones, because they were able to hand sell, therefore, I knew that I could give an owner a bottle of a martini, and they would be able to try it. And again, once people tried it, it was an easy sell. And so I definitely think for us, what we’ve done is just get out there and just do tastings and meet people and do events. It is really about education, that’s been our sort of best way to start to break that barrier down. And then hopefully, it’s just going to build like a snowball, you know, so enough people start talking about it. And you know, you get to do cool things like this. Like you get to do like things like Highball, for example. And, you know, a lot of people came in for the stall, and were like, “Oh, they’re already pre-made?” And I said, “Yeah, like, you know, taste them, though.” And as soon as they taste them, they’re walking away with a four pack and a 700ml. So it’s just a gradual for us. Obviously we’re a very small business so we don’t have, you know, a billion dollar marketing budget to go smash up TV commercials and billboards. And, you know, if we did, we’d be laughing, but we don’t have that. So for us it’s really just picking those right people to sort of make our ambassadors, and then education, education, tasting, tasting, tasting, and hopefully, given the success that we’ve had so far, that will just continue to grow kind of organically and word of mouth wise. And then with help, with people like yourselves, and with magazines and stuff like that.
Tash: So talk to me a little bit about you. You mentioned hand selling and that importance of the retailer kind of relationship to be able to point a customer in the direction of something that they’re going to love. What else is kind of in there? Because obviously there’s online sales, then there’s in-store sales. What are the ways that consumers are discovering you? And do you think there’s any kind of commonality between the kind of customers that are attracted or interested in this idea of taking home a bottle cocktail?
Amy: That’s a good question. So for us it really was about finding those key in-store ambassadors, and I think our customer is a specific customer, you know, ours aren’t like super cheap and cheerful. So it is that customer who’s willing to try something new, who has a little bit of extra cash. But the other thing about us that you know, hindsight is really great, and what actually was probably one of our key things was from a retail point of view, our little 100ml bottles because they come in 100ml and 700ml, a lot of the 100ml bottles are at the counter. And the price point is really approachable in terms of purchasing something and thinking, I hope this is good. But if it’s not, I haven’t really blown my bank account. It’s sort of the chocolate bar at the supermarket, you know, and you go to pay for your groceries, you haven’t seen that before. Pick it up. And you know, I think because placement, the retailer, you know, would say, oh, yeah, those are great. We drink those at my friend’s weddings, or whatever it might be. So it’s definitely finding those ambassadors. And just that our customer is someone who likes to experiment, for sure. And then I think through that retail and on-premise channethey naturally start coming through other ways of purchase.
Tash: Which is kind of cool. So talk to me a little bit about the palette like how did you decide or determine your range? Did you release the whole range at once? Or have you built it incrementally?
Amy: Incremental. Johnny and I are both classic drinkers. And when we wanted to release something and not have to add a ton of preservatives, classics, made the most sense. The level of booze. And so, he loves the Manhattan, I love a Negroni, we both like martinis, and he’s an Old Fashioned fan as well. So it really made sense to focus on those four real classic drinks. And at the time, you know, Negronis, for example, have grown so much these past five years in popularity. Whereas I think back to when I first had my Negroni, it was very, in the bartender club, kind of. And so we decided on those four and knowing that people that understood cocktails and understood what we’re trying to achieve, would hopefully recognise those four as well. Versus going down something like a Boulevardier or Martinez. You know, that’s a little bit more niche. So we started with four that were still really classic drinks. But hopefully, people would say, oh, I’ve heard of an Old Fashioned before, and it could be a conversation starter for someone who is kind of teetering on the edge. And so we launched with those four, and then we realised, okay, there’s also a much more contemporary, sweeter cocktail drinker. And that’s when we decided that we would launch the Chocolate Martini. And it was one of those things where we’ve had some hilarious late nights in Wellington. 4am. When Courtney Place used to be open until six, you know, we’d go upstairs to these hilarious bars and go “We’ll have chocolate martinis!” and the bartender is like, “Oh, here we go.” But what we realised is actually, that’s still really valid. And so we decided to make the Chocolate Martini. And then of course, the espresso was sort of a no brainer, given the popularity of it.
Tash: Just eternally popular. Will that ever go away? I don’t think it will.
Amy: I don’t think it will, you know, and I really don’t, we might listen to this in 20 years and be like, “Oh, we were wrong.”
Tash: Probably while we’re drinking espresso martinis.
Amy: But I definitely think coffee and booze will probably continue to be a thing. And with those, for us, again, it was about keeping with that high quality, despite the fact that they’re more contemporary sort of sweeter style cocktails. And so we’re really careful with our sugar balance on the espresso, for example. And with the chocolate, you know, a lot of people think that’s going to be really creamy. And it’s not, it’s vegan. It’s literally cacao blanc, cacao dark and vodka. So it’s as you would receive it if you ordered an Espresso Martini, at a high-end cocktail bar versus a really good kind of pub.
Tash: So I’m interested to talk about this aspect of sugar, vegan vs vegetarian vs, other ingredients, preservatives, and all that kind of stuff. Because when it comes to the variety of what’s on the market, by way of bottled cocktail, whether that’s more RTD, or in the premium kind of range, there’s a lot for consumers to consider. What have you noticed that consumers care about? And what do you think they should be looking for?
Amy: So I think that they want to know who makes them and I think, more than ever, especially after COVID, they want to know, who is this person I’m supporting? Who is this company I’m supporting? And can I relate to this person? Do they live in New Zealand and I think that that’s been really, really huge for us. And the other thing is this lower in sugar? Is this a lower ABV? People, I think, are more health conscious these days, and they’re not necessarily drinking five or six Old Fashioneds, they’re having one. And for everyone’s liver, that’s probably fantastic. So it’s one of those things, we definitely noticed, we get questions about who makes them? How do you make them? Does someone just bottle them on the line for you and, and they’re not. We bottle them all by hand, we blend them in large format, we bottle by hand, we have a super small team, it’s owner operated. And people love that. And it’s very cool how New Zealand has been so wonderful in supporting that.
Tash: So how do you manage and maintain quality? Is that something that’s maintained by the fact that you’ve got a small team and you’re doing everything by hand? Or are there other kinds of processes that you have to go through to make sure that you’re maintaining that consistency?
Amy: So at this at this stage, that’s exactly how we do it. It’s myself and two other of our team members that will batch the drinks. And there’s a rule where nothing else happens when you’re batching. You don’t check your phone, if you’re batching, you have your headphones in, and you’re following your recipe ticking it off as you go. Because it’s so easy to be “Oh, yeah, cool. I’ll just grab that phone call.” And then you’re like, “Did I add the Vermouth? Did I add all of the Vermouth? That just tastes like cold gin.” So we do have a rule in terms of making sure that that’s the case. And it sounds like really lame, but it is, it’s no phone calls, it’s no conversation, if you’re batching, you’re batching. And once that’s done, you know, start the party again. And as we grow, I totally respect that that might change ever so slightly. But, you know, I think back to some of the huge companies, like Maker’s Mark is a great example, they still have those bottles, you know, they are a huge global whiskey brand, you know, like arguably one of the biggest in the world. And they still hand dipped off the line.
Tash: Yep. Seven aside all the way down the line – dip, dip dip. Security.
Amy: And so the way I look at it is, if Maker’s Mark can retain hand dipping bottles, we can retain hand batching cocktails for the time being, and I taste the batches, we make sure that they sit for sort of seven to ten days to make sure that the bitters and the sugar comes together, for example, in the Old Fashioned, and they don’t split when they go in. And you know, there’s a lot of process behind it. People just think you just mix a whole bunch of things in a big jar, and away you go. And, essentially, you are, but it’s not as sort of simple as it looks. Yeah.
Tash: So we’re at the beginning I guess of dry July. When it comes to something like dry July, and the movement towards low or no alcohol cocktails. What kind of impact, if any, does it have on your business? Is that a growing consumer demand that you’re needing to meet? Or is July going to be a low month for you because people have been changing their drinking behaviour?
Amy: I think over the years dry July, and dry other months as well, is becoming more relevant. And I think we are going to need to address that, you know, July so far has been fine. We’re a week in. Because I think you have those people who, even if they’re cutting down in July, they still might love to have one drink on occasion. But instead of having four or five drinks a week, they might just have something really special. And the great thing about JMR is we are sort of that cherry on the top. So it is a little bit of a treat. But the no alcohol, low alcohol space is something that I’m super keen to look into and really start investigating for us. And a couple years ago when Seedlip did their NOgroni, I was like, that is so brilliant. But of course they’ve patented that name. And because it’s just so good, and I remember a lot of people in New Zealand, were all “Why would you pay that much money for it and for a non alcoholic cocktail?” but for me, I have an almost two year old and when I was pregnant, I wasn’t smashing Negronis back, but I would have been so happy if I walked into a bar and I could have a non alcoholic drink as being pregnant or driving or whatever your case may be. So I definitely think for us, it’s something I’m keen to explore and look into. And start to look either if it’s a different range under JMR, or if it’s something along those lines, but I think that there’s huge room in that category.
Tash: What do you think about the New Zealand palate? I mean, you obviously you’ve made your way here from other parts of the world. But you’re making products for New Zealanders. So what are your observations of the Kiwi palate?
Amy: So the Kiwi palate, when I first came here, I couldn’t believe how much sweet bourbon and sweet vodka cruisers and I was blown away.
Tash: Don’t forget the Blackheart ram and the Coruba.
Amy: God I know. So good. Iconic. And it’s interesting because in Canada, that’s obviously where I grew up and started my hospitality and drinking career. And, you know, I think back and, don’t get me wrong, I used to smash back Smirnoff Ice embarrassing, but true. I was 19.
Tash: We all need somewhere to grow from.
Amy: Exactly. That’s the way I look at it. The only way is up. But you know, it was early on that we moved to drinking vodka sodas, for example. And so when I came here, vodka cranberries were quite a thing, you know. And when I came here, I was really blown away by the amount of brown spirit that people drink. And just the, probably the sugar, and a lot more wine is consumed here. And so yeah, it was interesting. Like, for example, when we first released our Old Fashioned and Manhattan, we initially wanted to make them with rye because I like rye, Johnny likes rye. You know, it’s spicy. It’s got a beautiful backbone. But what we realised is, we’re making drinks for New Zealanders and bourbon was the choice. So, you know, you sort of did this taste test, took it outside of your hospitality friends, because they all have a different palate.
Tash: Yeah, we drink Amaro for fun.
Amy: Correct. Yeah, Vernay. Come on. And, you know, we tried it with people who would actually be people that were purchasing the drinks, and all of them found the rye too hot, you know, that was the comment. “Oh, it’s, it’s really hot. It feels warm.” So, you know, we adjusted that to suit the market that we’re in and created a product that was more suitable for the New Zealand palate.
Tash: What does growth look like? As you start to stare out at the horizon, where does the future take JMR?
Amy: It’s a good question. And we were really on a plan and then COVID sort of hit and we decided to ditch that plan because it was not going to be relevant anymore. And so here we are, and really over the next couple of years, and really just want to focus on our growth in New Zealand, and really want to be that sort of number one bottle cocktail of choice in that premium segment. And then grow that team create a home for us, you know? At the moment, we have a wonderful space that we manufacture out of it, but it’s not our space, we share it with other companies. So it’s creating a tasting environment for us and building on events. And, you know, allowing people to come in and actually try those drinks anytime that they want and creating a real home for us. And then it looks like setting up another market. So recreating what we’re doing, but focusing on some markets of growth and using products that would fit their palate, for example.
Tash: Which is actually quite unique because a lot of kiwi businesses, and not necessarily because they’re New Zealand businesses, but a lot of businesses, when they think about expanding into alternative markets, they’re thinking about taking that concept, thinking about taking those recipes into extending markets. So quite interesting to hear you talk about how the JMR concept might work in, you know, a market like Southeast Asia, where there’s a totally different kind of set of palate requirements going on. That’s really interesting.
Amy: Yeah. And I think a big learning for me, in particular, was working at Pernod Ricard and watching, brands like Chivas Regal and Absolut, for example, you know, what sold really well in Southeast Asia was not what sold well in New Zealand. So you realise, like their allocation for Absolute Tea, for example, you know, New Zealand was like, “What the heck?” Whereas, you know, over in Southeast Asia, it was amazing, you know, so I think it’s creating and meeting those people who are the sort of superstars in that market and getting their feedback versus me going to a country and just assuming that the product I have is going to fit.
Tash: Yeah. I love that. Actually, I think that that’s really cool. What are some of the personal lessons that you’ve learned, or kind of picked up as you’ve made the move from, as you say, kind of more corporate liquor into now this owner-operated model? Are there things that have translated straight across? Or are there things that are unique to being a smaller, alcohol-focused business?
Amy: Yeah, there’s a lot of learnings. I think there are some amazing things that you learn from a corporate environment, I wouldn’t trade it. For my days at Pernod Ricard, I used to work at the Four Seasons hotels, you learn structure, you learn systems, which are so relevant in a small business, even if it is yourself. The way I operate is, I need to have a really clear understanding of where I’m going, otherwise, new shiny thing comes along, and I’m gone. And so I think, from a corporate side, that has been really helpful for me, because I’m able to put that down somewhere and prioritise and build a team around me based on skill, not necessarily position. But I would say that it’s very much a small business mentality. So in a corporate world, you’re trying to fit someone into this box often. And from my point of view, it makes more sense for me to find really good humans, find out what they’re passionate about, and how they can help drive portions of the business that I’m not so great at. And another big learning is, I can’t do it all. And, you know, outsource if you need to, there’s things that I spend three days on, stupid website things, and I’m like, “Gosh, I’ve just spent half my week trying to upload this” or whatever the case may be. Whereas if I had just actually asked for help from someone, or even, you know, employed someone to do that, for me, in the long run value of your time, versus that has been a big learning for me. And I realise there’s things that I need to say no to as well. Again, that shiny mentality, you know, go back to that strategy, go back to what the goal is, like, my goal is to become the premium cocktail, you know, it’s the bottled cocktail in New Zealand, and there’s cool things that come along the way, but there’s definitely things that steer you away from what you should be working on. And I think because the team is so small, that is a challenge for me constantly.
Tash: With that lofty goal in mind, and obviously it sort of feels like every three months, there’s another competitor on the market. What are the big goals? What are the big stones that JMR needs to kind of achieve and put in the jar, so to speak, the big things that you’re targeting for the next kind of 12 months?
Amy: Yeah, so for us, the competitors on the market are actually a good thing. Because I think it actually brings more awareness to the category. But I definitely think for us, we need to get around more. And in particular, for us, it’s Auckland, so we’re going to be spending a lot more time in Auckland, and really cementing our position, hopefully, there through some key retailers. And we already work for some beautiful hotels up there like Hotel Britomart, and things like that. So it’s really seeking out those like minded people, finding those ambassadors on the ground for us, and focusing on that. And then of course, as growth comes, the pain points for things like storage and production, but I’m sort of like, let’s get the growth and then worry about that at this stage. You know, our supply chain is good, our team is good. And so if all of a sudden I had to bottle 2000 cocktails by the end of the month, like I would be tired, but we can do it, you know. So it’s really about just spreading us around New Zealand and focusing on some tasting programmes and focusing on growth really.
Tash: Well, I know a couple of good humans in Auckland that would be more than happy to have a drink with you when you roll into town. Drink of the day? It’s a cold and bitter day in Wellington. You know, because winter gives us so much. Winter offers so much in the capital. What’s the drink of the day going to be when you knock off work today?
Amy: To be fair, it would be a Negroni. They really are my go-to. I know it’s terribly boring. But yeah, or a big juicy glass of red wine.
Tash: Okay. Yeah. Let’s talk about ingredients and varietals. The varietal on the wine? Red?What’s it going to be?
Amy: Oh, good question. Maybe a Syrah? Maybe a bit spicy? A bit of pepper?
Tash: Yeah. And what’s your go-to trio of ingredients for a Negroni?
Amy: So mine would be, for my vermouth. It would be Antica Formula. And my bitters is Campari. I just can’t go past it. I’ve tried. And then Gin. I actually always like trying what the bartenders recommendation, especially all these cool new gins that are coming up, like, left, right and centre really. It’s very cool. Just continuously that category grows. So to be fair, my standard would be a London dry gin, Antica and Campari but I’m really down for bartenders choice. So if they tell me, we have this crazy thing in I love trying new things.
Edited for clarity.